Hollywood movies, television, and books have popularized the insanity defense in criminal cases throughout the years. The real-world application of the insanity defense does not always follow the reputation it has from the entertainment world. In this article, criminal defense attorney Rahul Balaram discusses the insanity defense and when and how it can be successfully used in court.
The Insanity Defense
Mental capacity can have a significant impact on many legal proceedings. A defendant in a criminal case can be found incompetent to stand trial because they are unable to assist their attorney in presenting a defense. A defendant’s mental state can act in some cases to lessen the degree of responsibility they have for a criminal act. A will or property transfer by a mentally incompetent person can be set aside in some cases. The insanity defense differs from these, in that an insanity defense is designed to be an affirmative, or total, defense to a criminal case. Essentially, the insanity defense is intended to show that a defendant cannot be responsible for their illegal actions because of a temporary or permanent psychiatric disease.
Three Types of Insanity Defenses
1. The Right-Wrong Test
The oldest and most common insanity defense relates to cognitive ability. It focuses on the defendant’s ability to recognize reality rather than on a lack of ability to control their actions. The defendant must be suffering from a recognized mental illness when the criminal act is committed. It must also be proven that as a result of the mental defect, the defendant did not understand the nature of the criminal act or that the action was wrongful. This defense typically requires a strong medical diagnosis of a disease that directly affects a person’s ability to understand the real world, such as psychosis or acute schizophrenia.
2. The Irresistible Impulse Test
This defense is not recognized by many modern courts and has lost favor in recent years. This defense incorporates elements of the Right-Wrong test into an analysis of the defendant’s ability to act willfully in controlling their conduct. The defense rests on a medical diagnosis that a defendant has no free choice over their actions.
3. The Substantial Capacity Defense
Many modern criminal codes have adopted the substantial capacity insanity standard. This test is based more on medical expertise than judicial discretion. This defense states that the defendant is not criminally responsible if, at the time of the offense, they lacked “substantial capacity” to understand what acts are criminally wrong or to act in accordance with the legal requirements of the criminal law. This test requires that a defendant proves they had a mental illness and that as a result, they could not act in accordance with the law.
The burden of establishing an insanity defense belongs to the defendant. The defense is difficult to establish and always relies on medical evidence that can be very difficult to obtain and establish in court.
About Rahul Balaram
Rahul Balaram’s legal career has been dedicated to representing defendants in criminal cases. Before founding the Balaram Law Office in Santa Rosa, Mr. Balaram served as a Deputy Public Defender, representing indigent citizens in criminal cases of all types. He is a cum laude graduate of the University of San Francisco Law School and holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Psychology from the University of California, San Diego.
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